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Russia: St. Petersburg Marches Ahead To The Past

St. Petersburg, Russia; 3 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- If you are in a hurry to get to the American consulate in St. Petersburg and want to take a cab, don't bother telling your driver to take you to Furshtadtskaya Ulitsa, the street on which the consulate actually is located.

If you tell him that, chances are a puzzled expression will come over his face.

It won't be that he doesn't know the city. It's just that he grew up knowing that the American consulate is located on Ulitsa Petra Lavrova, named in honor of the 19th century Russian revolutionary philosopher, Petr Lavrov. That's the Soviet-era name.

As with dozens of other streets that were given back their pre-revolutionary names in the early 1990s after the collapse of the USSR, Furshtadtskaya has yet to sink into the popular consciousness. This is not out of ideological conviction, but because habit dies hard.

Now, four years since the last time Soviet-era street names were changed, Governor Vladimir Yakovlev has resumed the process of returning the tsarist-era names of city streets and bridges that was begun by his predecessor, Mayor Anatoli Sobchak.

Twelve were changed in January, and just as many more are to be considered in the coming months. Ulitsa Plekhanovo, for example, is now Ulitsa Kazanskaya-named in honor of the Kazan Cathedral which stands at the intersection of the street and Nevsky Prospect.

Return of tsarist era street names and bridges is welcomed by those who, in the words of Svetlana Alekseyeva, a historian and author of a book about the history of the city's streets, "want to get back to their historical roots, correct historical injustices, and finally end the use of street signs as ideological weapons."

One jarring name choice has been reversed. Grenivitsky Most, the bridge next to the Cathedral of the Savior of the Blood -- which was built to commemorate the memory of the murdered Tsar Alexander II on the spot where he died -- now has been given the name Novo-Konnushenie Most. Ignaty Grenivitsky was the Polish terrorist from Narodnaya Volya (The People's Will) who in 1881 threw the bomb which killed Alexander II. Valerie Genkin, deputy director of the City Commission on Street Names, says the Soviet name choice was, in his words "not very tactful."

Even this exercise has detractors. They charge that the current government is using street signs to serve a new ideology, and that it is a waste of taxpayers' money. Valerie Genkin rebuts with these words: "Returning the old names of city streets isn't political. It's just common sense prevailing, so that the city can have its roots back." He points out that companies advertising on new street signs are defraying the costs."